Friday, November 25, 2016

Knights (And Author) Come Away Empty At Gary Miller Classic

I always say during and after Gannon's home-opening weekend that it's great to be back at the Hammermill Center, but this weekend had less excitement than years past. It wasn't just because Gannon lost the championship game to feisty Ohio Dominican, 66-56, after rallying past Lake Erie (Oh.) College Friday night, 83-77. I had a feeling of emptiness this weekend for a variety of reasons:
  • The late Jim LeCorchick was a big part of my Gannon basketball experience for the past 30+ years, starting with his "Knights On The Line" call-in radio program during the 1980s and extending into a longtime friendship. He was one of the people I shook hands with before every Gannon home game, and we would often keep a running dialogue during timeouts. No matter the circumstances, Jimmy made the games more enjoyable. He was certainly missed this weekend.
  • Last year's 7-19 season still stings. My wife didn't attend Friday's nail-biter against Lake Erie but she followed the live stats, and when the Knights were trailing the Storm late, she texted me, "You pulling your hair out?" I wasn't because even though Lake Erie entered the game winless, I half-expected Gannon to lose since I got so used to defeats last year. You know the saying, "Been down so low, don't know which way is up"? That's me right now. It will take a Gannon win streak of several games for me to fully rebound from last season's catastrophe. 
  • It wasn't so long ago that drawing 1,240 fans to the Audi would have been described as a disappointing crowd for Gannon. But the Knights attracted that many people this weekend -- for both games combined. The official box scores listed an attendance of 614 for Friday and 626 for Saturday. Gannon's "6th Man" was a real factor that boosted the program into the upper echelon of small college basketball. Now "6 Men" regrettably represents 1% of the total attendance for a game. 
  • What also has me feeling empty is our country's rise in hate crimes these past few weeks against minorities. Furthermore, many Americans are denying or ignoring the root cause what has emboldened these white nationalists which makes the problem even worse. What does this have to do with Gannon basketball? Until I walked-on to the Gannon team in 1988, I had little to no contact with African-Americans and non-Americans. My four years on the team showed me that all men are equal (though most were taller than me), and for us to quietly tolerate inequality is unconscionable. If my statements make you uncomfortable and if you're thinking of telling me to "stick to basketball," blame my coaches, priests, and mentors at Gannon who taught me it's our duty to speak out against social injustice. And blame Bobby Kennedy, too.
Let's see if some basketball analysis can lift our collective spirits.

Why Gannon Beat Lake Erie: Bottom line, Gannon had more talent than the Storm. That might seem like on obvious statement, but it's not one we could make after most games last season. This club is quicker, more aggressive, more athletic, and more offensively skilled than last year's team. Newcomers Zay Jackson and Gerrell Williams are threats in transition and shooting jumpers, while big man Evan Phoenix has great hands and a nifty half-hook.

Lake Erie stayed in the game only because of hot three-point shooting in the first half (10-of-14 3FG). But when John Reilly adjusted his half court man defense to help less on dribble penetration, and thus discourage kick-out passes that had led to open threes, the Storm's game plan was nullified and it was only a matter of time before Gannon ran away with this one.

Why Gannon Lost To Ohio Dominican: One of the first lessons I learned from Tom Chapman my freshman year at Gannon was that well-coached teams take away your first option on offense, and the extremely prepared teams take away your first and your second options. Consider ODU one of those highly prepared teams. I sat near their bench, and coach Dan Evans and his assistants knew almost all of Gannon's half court and inbounds plays, calling out instructions to their players before Gannon executed its set.

Personnelwise, ODU neutralized Phoenix in the post through a combination double teams and the long arms of tournament MVP Hasan Varence. They also chased three-point threat Jackson all night, harassing him into a 1-of-8 shooting chart, and forcing the Knights to rely on a third option. In the first half, that was senior Matt Dogan who burned the nets with 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting, but he played limited minutes in the second half, never seeing action after being subbed out at the 12:29 mark despite being GU's leading scorer at that point. No third option on offense meant no Gary Miller Classic title.

Based on the history of the PSAC, the Knights appear to have the ability to post a winning season and even battle for one of the top spots in the conference. To achieve that, they need to add at least a couple new offensive schemes to keep opponents off balance while at the same time developing a reliable third option on offense. The defense is pretty close I think. They frustrated Ohio Dominican during a 26-point first half and held the Panthers 22 points below their season average for the game. Limiting dribble penetration by the primary ballhandler plagued Gannon both games, but the D was strong in many other aspects.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What A Difference A Zay Makes

The Gannon debut of junior transfer Zay Jackson was a nightmare for him and the Golden Knight faithful. Jackson, lauded as a lights-out shooter, connected on just 1-of-14 field goals, including 1-for-8 on threes, and made only 1-of-3 foul shots to total 4 points in 33 minutes. Oh, and the Knights lost at previously winless West Chester, 73-63, Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, we saw* a brand new Zay with Jackson erupting for 23 first-half points on 8-of-10 shooting (5-for-7 on threes), leading Gannon to an 81-48 shellacking of Cheyney. (We didn't actually see it because Cheyney hasn't embraced live-streaming video like the rest of the Western world.) Jackson took only one shot in the second half but still ended with a game-high 26 tallies.

Jackson's weekend reminded me of Adam Blazek's home debut and bounceback game in 2011. In a stunning 67-65 loss to Daemen, Blazek was just 1-for-8 (1-for-4 on threes) in 29 minutes of play, causing some GU fans to question if the Prep product was capable of playing on the DII level. Well, Blazek roared back in a big way the following evening, scorching Roberts Wesleyan for 23 points -- 14 of them in the first 4 minutes of the game -- as Gannon raced to an 86-61 win.

I'm not saying we should pencil in Jackson as a future All-American and surefire PSAC Player of the Year. I'm actually saying just the opposite: we need not rush to extreme conclusions based on one or two season-opening games.

Though we are permitted to be a little excited about the weekend performance of super sophomore big man Evan Phoenix. The 6-foot-9 transfer from Division I Central Connecticut State looked skilled and athletic against West Chester (27 points, 11-for-17 FG) and stuffed the stat sheet at Cheyney with a Glen Summors-like 19 points and 19 rebounds in 39 minutes. On video, he resembled former Gannon great Zaid Al-Khas, who was also a DI transfer (from Buffalo).

I can't wait to see this team in person -- and we won't have to much longer. See you Friday at the Hammermill for the Gary Miller Classic!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Wait Program

In my Oct. 27 post, I wrote, "We're barely over two weeks away from the season's official tip-off when the Knights face Livingstone (N.C.) at the Glenville State (W.Va.) Tip-Off Classic." Then I added jokingly, "Keep in mind, though, that the world could end Nov. 8 if the United States elects the wrong person as President."

Well, the Gannon Hoops world spun off its axis today when the university launched a press release saying, "The Glenville State Men's Basketball Tip-off Classic scheduled for Saturday, November 12th and Sunday, November 13th has been cancelled due to several teams with budget constrictions. The host school announced the decision Monday afternoon."

I'll dig into this more -- Is Gannon one of the teams with the budget shortage? I swear I was going to send in my booster club donation later this week! -- and let you know if the school is allowed to share anything publicly. I also want to find out if these two games will be made up in a different form later this season, though I don't see any obvious gaps in the Gannon schedule. And even if they are made up, there's no stopping Gannon from starting PSAC play Nov. 19 (at West Chester) without any games under its belt.

I don't recall anything like this happening before on the college level. I've seen it with an occasional summer rec league games and once for a grade school tournament, but never in NCAA play.

Updated 11/7/16 8:38 PM: Gannon SID Dan Teliski quickly emailed me back just now to say, “Gannon was not one of the programs with budget issues. We are disappointed we are not able compete in the Glenville State Tip-Off Classic, but the lack of teams made tournament officials cancel the event. We respect the decision of those teams who elected not to play and the tournament director’s decision to cancel the event. Unfortunately, the notice is just too late for us to find any replacement teams. Luckily, these were two additional games we were playing on top of the normal 26 games allowed by NCAA rules. The two additional games are allowed if they are part of regional challenges.”